[This article was written by Ashley Gwinnell, who co-founded tiny indie studio Force Of Habit after graduating in 2012.]
Hear hear! Microsoft announces ID@Xbox lineup, PlayStation hearts indies, Nintendo launches something indie too, but are they as indie-friendly as they say they are?
It has to be prefixed here, the word "indie" doesn't mean much anymore. Platform holders jump at the word because third-party publishing is becoming stale with sequels and they need fresh content to keep their audiences happy.
Large studios are using the word after they've run a successful Kickstarter campaign and/or have departed from the traditional publisher model. Giants like Samsung join the club with a '100% Indie' initiative and even Activision Blizzard buy themselves out from parent company Vivendi to supposedly become indie.
Where does it stop? I've never really liked the classification. It's used so loosely. What I consider to be indie is not what Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo consider to be indie. I'd say the so-called real indies are the auteurs, the underdogs, the microstudios. Realistically though, indie is whatever anybody wants it to be, to suit whatever context they can dream up in their heads.
Microsoft recently announced the 32 indies currently on their ID@Xbox programme. Not just announced, but shouted it, and no doubt the press were an amplifier. Great for gamers, right? Look at all the big names on there, like Crytek and Double Fine. Hang on, ID@Xbox means indie developer at Xbox though, and those definitely aren't what I consider indie. Do they know that indie isn't synonymous with self-publishing anymore?
What Microsoft have done is hand-picked developers based on their own agenda. I couldn't tell you what that agenda is, but I can take a few smart guesses. Maximum potential revenue per title? Titles from recognised studios with the lowest risk? Hand-picking is great for them, but leaves others who have applied and been unsuccessful (or worse, ignored) feeling resentful. Saying "make a game for Windows 8" is not good enough. There are so many stakeholders to please, so can the real indies really blame them?
I feel like I'm picking on Microsoft, but they've historically been pretty good. They opened up the 360 with programmes like XBLA and XBLIG, and provided good tools like XNA, but it seems that somewhere along the way, they just stopped caring. Microsoft aside, there are still high barriers or other problems with the others.
Nintendo have a similar programme to Microsoft. A simple form to fill in, and then lots of waiting. It took around three weeks for a response to come through for me. A positive one - you're approved! - but the reality wasn't so.
I don't have any experience with Sony and the PS4/Vita duo, and I don't hear anything explicitly bad about them. I see a lot of ports happening. Spelunky, Hotline Miami, Lone Survivor and so on - definitely what I would call indie games. However these are titles that have existing, proven successes elsewhere. I don't think the platforms are actually opening up. I think there was an initial action that was motivated by business, but the end result is that other real indies started admiring the platform for welcoming them. It's now their sort-of self-perpetuating reputation.
There are things that none of the platform holders have got right. In the long-term, many things will need to change, and I'm naively optimistic.
First things first, dev kits. The next-gen is a go, and hardware specs are unlikely to change, so why is there still a need for a dedicated piece of equipment? All devices should be dev kits. Don't exclude the tinkerers and the curious. Yes, this is all in Microsoft's 'vision' for Xbox One, but these promises will need to be delivered on. *Insert 180 joke here*.
Sony have a headstart with PS Mobile for Vita, but that only supports C# development flavours. Unity for PS Mobile is in beta too, and that's great for the many developers using Unity these days, but as a C++ developer, this isn't good. Native is still very important.
Secondly, the platforms need to become more open, both in the sense of open information and open sign-up. No NDAs. There are two sides on the latter point to this argument, and I'm on the side of "open platforms can and do work". Allow anybody to use your platform and release things, more akin to mobile. The cream always rises to the top, and more obscure/niche titles can be found via search. A great example of this working is YouTube. I always find what I'm looking for, and the recommendations are spot on. While on that, reduce QA/certification procedures, and allow support of continuous updates/deployment.
Third, completely forget release parity. Having found releasing our first game – Toast Time – on a single platform very challenging, I don't want to even think about a simultaneous/multiple-platform release. I feel that staggered releases are better for small developers anyway, they allow you to focus your release-marketing and not spread yourself too thin, and to gradually grow your audience/following. Release parity excludes ports too.
By now you've realised I feel that the big three have not opened up enough, or in the most beneficial ways to true indies. So as cool as consoles are, until I feel that some of this has changed, I'll stick to my guns.
Platform holders, if you're listening, speak up, solve it, sort it out.